In Trump’s America, Violence Wins

The president praised a Montana congressman who assaulted a reporter. But voters aren’t punishing the GOP for its support of brutality.

Donald Trump gestures to his right from behind a podium at a rally.
President Donald Trump speaks during the rally in Missoula, Montana, on Thursday. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday night, President Donald Trump celebrated a violent crime. At a rally in Montana, Trump saluted Rep. Greg Gianforte, who pleaded guilty last year to assaulting a reporter. Trump mimicked Gianforte’s takedown of Ben Jacobs, a Guardian correspondent who, on the final day of a special congressional election in May 2017, had tried to ask Gianforte about health care. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of—he’s my guy,” Trump told the applauding crowd.

Trump looked off to the side and saw somebody—apparently Gianforte—who seemed embarrassed by his remark. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Trump said jovially. “I had heard that he body-slammed a reporter. … And I said, ‘Oh, this is terrible. He’s going to lose the election.’ Then I said, ‘Well, wait a minute. I know Montana pretty well. I think it might help him.’ And it did!” Trump grinned, and the crowd roared.

Trump’s praise for this assault makes a mockery of his claim, three minutes earlier, that “Democrats have become the party of crime.” He has a long history of encouraging violence, and he’s still doing it as he defends a Saudi government that apparently murdered a journalist two weeks ago. But Trump isn’t just saying it’s good to hurt people. He’s boasting that voters support politicians who hurt people or who endorse hurting people. He’s saying this because Gianforte won in 2017, and because Trump won in 2016 despite—or perhaps, in part, thanks to—his advocacy of violence and his admission on tape that he sexually assaulted women.

Trump is betting that in 2018, he’ll win again. He thinks you’ll vote for Gianforte and other Republicans because you like their culture of brutality: beating up reporters and protesters, protecting Vladimir Putin, kneecapping the FBI, mocking women who report sexual assault, and separating children from their parents. If you vote Republican, or if you stay home and let Trump’s supporters win, he’ll claim that the election of 2018, like the elections of 2017 and 2016, is a mandate for his war on morals and the rule of law.

Since Trump’s election, his patterns of behavior—lying, smearing, baiting, subverting—have worsened. That’s partly because these traits are in his nature. But it’s also because they haven’t hurt him much. Republican lawmakers have shrugged or chuckled and continued to support him. Voters have continued to elect Republicans to Congress. The first two congressmen who endorsed Trump for president are under indictment on charges of financial crimes. In their re-election ads, they’re race-baiting. And they’re winning.

Most voters don’t support thuggery. In the Montana special election, an automated poll by a Republican firm found that 9 percent of voters, after hearing about Gianforte’s assault on Jacobs, switched to support the Democrat. But that wasn’t enough to overcome Gianforte’s lead. Many of his supporters brushed off or defended the attack. “We’ve watched how the press is one-sided,” said one. “There’s an end to everyone’s patience,” said another. On Fox News, a veteran from Montana called Jacobs a “snowflake” and warned other troublemakers: “You mess around, you might not be around.”

Two weeks after the attack, Public Policy Polling asked a national sample of voters, “Do you think it is appropriate or inappropriate for Republican politicians to body slam members of the media?” Seventy-two percent of women and 65 percent of men said it was inappropriate. But among Republicans, it was a close call: 48 percent said it was inappropriate, while 41 percent said it was appropriate. Among people who had voted for Trump, the split was almost even: 45 percent inappropriate, 42 percent appropriate.

The poll results, like the election results, underscore two problems. First, every branch of the federal government is now controlled by a party in which a near-plurality of voters supports violence against the press. Majorities, pluralities, or near-pluralities of Republicans also support discrimination against Muslims and think whites face more discrimination than minorities do. And this is compounded by a second problem: Americans who don’t support these positions aren’t punishing the GOP. Too many people who didn’t approve of Gianforte’s body slam or Trump’s abuse of women voted for these candidates anyway.

In November 2016, exit pollsters asked voters, “Does Donald Trump’s treatment of women bother you?” Half the respondents said it bothered them some, not much, or not at all, and the vast majority of these people voted for Trump. But among the other half—those who said Trump’s treatment of women bothered them a lot—11 percent voted for him anyway. That made the difference. The same thing is happening now. In the latest Economist/YouGov poll, most people say Trump isn’t honest or trustworthy and doesn’t have the temperament to be president. Only 31 percent say he’s honest and trustworthy, 18 percent say he’s not hypocritical, and 11 percent say he’s not arrogant. But 41 percent say they’ll vote Republican for Congress. That’s just five points shy of the 46 percent who plan to vote Democratic.

That’s why Trump celebrates violence against reporters and tells cops not to worry about banging suspects’ heads on police cars. It’s why he jokes that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.” It’s why he brags that his speech at a rally two weeks ago, in which he mocked Christine Blasey Ford for not remembering details of her alleged sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh, rescued Kavanaugh, and secured his confirmation to the Supreme Court. Trump believes that advocating violence and ridiculing victims are effective political tactics. He thinks that people who like this behavior will support Republicans and that many people who don’t like it—enough to decide the election—will stay home or vote Republican anyway.

He was right in 2016. He was right in 2017. What you do on Election Day will tell him whether he’s right again.